Stephen Bourne looks at how gay men were portrayed in British television drama from 1939 to 1979.
Until Queer as Folk hit British television screens on Channel 4 in 1999, a television drama about gay men as revealing and sexually explicit as this would not have been possible. In Queer as Folk its openly gay creator and writer Russell T. Davies revealed something of the diversity of gay men’s lives in a stylish, energetic and provocative way. It also succeeded in ‘crossing over’ to a straight audience. Since Queer as Folk a number of gay characters have been integrated into mainstream, popular television dramas. Even the conservative Coronation Street, after forty-two years on the air, caught up in 2003. However, it would be wrong to assume that Queer as Folk is the only worthwhile gay television drama made in this country, for there has been a ‘queer’ presence on television since the BBC transmitted its pre-war service live from Alexandra Palace from 1936 to 1939.
When Patrick Hamilton’s stage play Rope was first adapted for BBC television in 1939 the on-screen announcer Jasmine Bligh warned viewers: “We think it is our duty to inform you that this play may not be considered suitable for children or for those who are of a particularly nervous or sensitive disposition.” Were the BBC warning its viewers about the subject of the play – a gruesome murder – or that the leading characters were a homosexual couple? In 1939 (male) same sex acts were a criminal offence, and censorship would have prohibited the BBC to feature any explicit gay characters in its drama output. The word homosexual was not even mentioned on BBC television until 1953. In the 1930s, and until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised homosexual acts, gay men existed outside the law, and were considered unnatural by the majority of the general public. However, after 1939, the BBC saw fit to produce three more television adaptations of Rope, in 1947 (featuring an exciting new actor called Dirk Bogarde), 1950 and 1953. In 1957 an independent company, Granada (based in Manchester), produced the fifth and final television adaptation.
It was Granada that produced one of the first factual programmes for television about homosexuality. It was called Homosexuality and the Law and it was screened in 1957 to coincide with the publication of the Wolfenden Report. This recommended that ‘homosexual practices’ in private between consenting males over the age of twenty-one should be decriminalised. Granada also took responsibility for screening South in their Play of the Week series in 1959, the first television drama to feature an explicitly homosexual character. Peter Wyngarde took the role but, four years earlier, when the comedy actor Kenneth Williams saw the original stage production of South at London’s Arts Theatre Club, he made the following complaint in his diary: “…of course he commits suicide…They’re always killing themselves. Totally misleading & distorted picture of life…I’m sick of this ‘persecuted queer’ stuff.”
Launched by the BBC in 1962 Z Cars quickly earned a reputation as one of the most authentic drama series on British television. In an episode entitled Somebody…Help (1964) the writer John Hopkins introduced the blackmail of a gay man into the story. Unfortunately it is impossible to assess this episode because it was not recorded and the script has vanished from the BBC’s Written Archives. In 1965 Hopkins other gay-themed drama Horror of Darkness (1965), shown in the BBC’s acclaimed but controversial series The Wednesday Play, was recorded and has survived. It is a psychological drama in which Robin Fletcher (Nicol Williamson), a sad, tortured soul disrupts the relationship between his friend Peter (Alfred Lynch) and Cathy (Glenda Jackson). Robin’s love for Peter is unrequited and after Peter rejects him, Robin commits suicide. This act may conform to the ‘persecuted queer’ stereotype criticised by Kenneth Williams, but Hopkins put together a complex and compelling play that was appreciated by some viewers.
Some of the more memorable scenes in Horror of Darkness include Robin’s declaration of his love for Peter: “I love you!” It is beautifully realised, and probably the first open expression of the love of one man for another on British television. As recorded in BBC1’s Duty Office Log for 10 March 1965, viewer’s reactions to the play on the evening of the transmission ranged from the confused (“There are six of us watching this play. What is it all about? Perhaps you will ring back and tell me”) to the outraged (“Disgusting stuff”, “What has come over the BBC. You are always showing us plays about perverts.”). Other reactions were, on the whole, favourable and enthusiastic (“First class. Excellent”, “Brilliant. The tense relationship between the players was brought out marvellously…Terrific”, “One of the best plays I have seen on TV. Excellently acted, marvellously written and beautifully done in every way.”). However, the Audience Research Report says: “The element of homosexuality aroused a good deal of distaste, and for a sizeable number the theme as a whole was ‘revolting’…’I suppose these twisted people are fascinating in an awful sort of way’ probably summed up this response.”
The Wednesday Play – which ended in 1970 – was often controversial, especially when it dealt with themes that some television viewers found upsetting. One of its most vocal critics was Mrs Mary Whitehouse. In 1964 the ‘housewife’ who purported to speak for the nation’s viewers helped to launch the Clean Up Television campaign which soon afterwards evolved into the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA). In her 1967 book Cleaning Up TV Mrs Whitehouse criticised Horror of Darkness: “There are thousands of men with homosexual tendencies who have found creative outlet for their sexual energies and understand what self-discipline and faith can do for them. Why should these not become the theme of a Wednesday play?”
Other notable productions in the Wednesday Play series that featured gay themes or characters included Hugo Charteris’s The Connoisseur (1965), Simon Gray’s Spoiled (1968) and Peter Terson’s The Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel (1969). Also shown around the time of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was Associated Rediffusion’s Friends (1967). This led to the circulation of an internal memo requesting that “There should be some warning to viewers of the homosexual theme so that the play can be avoided…The playing must be very discreet.”
Following the birth of the Gay Liberation Front in 1970 and the launch of the popular bi-weekly newspaper Gay News, Thames Television commissioned Philip Mackie’s script for The Naked Civil Servant, adapted from the autobiography of Quentin Crisp. John Hurt eagerly accepted the role of Crisp, a flamboyant gay exhibitionist living in London in the 1930s and 1940s. The project had been declined by the BBC but, when it was screened on 17 December 1975, viewers were enthralled by the story of a gay warrior who fought many battles on the streets of London. According to an IBA survey, when the play was first shown, only 18 out of a sample of 475 viewers switched it off because of the content. 85% of those surveyed said that it was not shocking, and few felt that Crisp’s story ‘encouraged’ homosexuality.
Immediately after The Naked Civil Servant several gay-themed television dramas surfaced. The best of these included Lola, a three-part story in Granada’s popular daytime courtroom drama series Crown Court (1976). In Lola a gay transvestite is falsely charged with importuning and assaulting a ‘pretty’ police officer in a gay club. Blasphemy at the Old Bailey (BBC 1977) reconstructed the Gay News blasphemy trial and in The Obelisk (BBC 1977), an adaptation of a short story by E M Forster, a middle-aged married couple each enjoy their brief encounters with a couple of sailors on a day out at the seaside. Alan Bennett’s Me! I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf (London Weekend Television, 1978) was a gentle, beguiling, semi-autobiographical character study of a gay college lecturer who falls in love with a male student.
Coming Out was shown in BBC1’s acclaimed Play for Today series in 1979. James Andrew Hall’s drama focussed on an ‘Agony Aunt’ (Anton Rodgers) who finds he may have to come out of the closet. The play received a mixed reaction. Richard Last in the Daily Telegraph found it “a sympathetic view of homosexuality” while Keith Howes, reviewing it for Gay News, blasted it for being “incapable of tackling the ‘coming out’ theme it had set itself…this was the gay world seen through pebble-thick glasses with all the self-deprecation and mendacity that television viewers have been conditioned to expect.” Howes felt that the play, though relatively frank and revealing about the lives of gay men, was negative in its attitude towards gay men in particular, and gay political action in general.
Forty years after the BBC’s first television adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s Rope there came a major breakthrough. W Stephen Gilbert, an openly gay drama producer at the BBC, commissioned Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths, from the radical theatre company Gay Sweatshop, to write an original drama for television. They had already been acclaimed for their stage work. The result was Only Connect, shown on BBC2 in a series called The Other Side, one month after Coming Out. It concerned a research student’s rediscovery of the forgotten figure of Edward Carpenter, a socialist pioneer and campaigner for gay rights. Keith Howes enthused in Gay News: “Credit should be bestowed upon all the people involved with Only Connect. It was a sensational work in the truest sense: changing our perceptions, stimulating our minds, stretching us. Although it was…completely accessible to non-gay people, it was ultimately ours. All we were required to do was to adapt to its pace and structure and watch it. I hope we haven’t seen the last of it.”
With Only Connect the BBC succeeded in producing a drama that portrayed the lives of gay men in a thoughtful and naturalistic way. However, in spite of Keith Howes’s hope that “we haven’t seen the last of it”, Only Connect remained buried until I was introduced to it in the early 1990s by W. Stephen Gilbert, then found a copy in the BBC’s archive, and successfully screened it at the National Film Theatre, first in 1992 and again in 2000.
Only Connect is a masterpiece and yet it has been barely mentioned in any histories of British television, or histories of gay men. Rare exceptions have been Keith Howes’s indispensable encyclopedia Broadcasting It (Cassell, 1993) and Lez Cooke’s A Sense of Place: Regional British Television Drama (Manchester University Press, 2012). Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths, through their work with Gay Sweatshop had, according to Keith Howes, “somehow managed to become one voice – a bewitching combination of two very different gay men – and yet they came from totally different perspectives. Drew was known to be chaotic and political, but in a sweet, gentle way, whereas Noel was hard-driving, very involved in gay rights and other political actions.”
Only Connect is beautifully crafted and satisfying on every level. When listening to the quality of the dialogue there is a realisation of what great talents Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths were. Each of their characters is fully rounded. The fact that they’re gay is, of course, integral, but it is not the only thing about them. What makes Only Connect special is that W. Stephen Gilbert produced it with great love and care and he allowed two gay writers to have a voice, which they’d never have been given on television anywhere els.
The Naked Civil Servant and Only Connect are two sides of the same coin. The former is all about oppression, individuality, fighting, and Only Connect is about loving, but this was the breakthrough. Says Keith Howes: “This was the turning point in gay television history that failed to turn. It is its beginning and its end. The publicity around Coming Out completely submerged Only Connect, and, because it isn’t seen, or acknowledged anywhere, nobody will ever know what we have really lost.”
Stephen Bourne and Out of the Archives
Every July from 1992 to 2001 Stephen Bourne curated lesbian and gay-themed television retrospectives for the National Film Theatre in London’s South Bank. Stephen was responsible for rediscovering, screening and helping to contextualise a vast collection of dramas, documentaries and comedies. These included a number of single dramas such as South, On Trial: Oscar Wilde, Afternoon of a Nymph, In Camera, Horror of Darkness, Entertaining Mr Sloane, Edward II, Country Matters: Breeze Anstey, Total Eclipse, Second City Firsts: Girl, Play of the Month: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Play for Today: The Other Woman, Premiere: The Obelisk, Premiere: A Hymn from Jim, Play for Today: Coming Out, The Other Side: Only Connect, The Other Side: Connie, Something for the Boys, Coriolanus, Belles, and An Englishman Abroad.
In 2006 Stephen graduated from De Montfort University with a Master of Philosophy degree. The subject of his thesis was the representation of gay men in British television drama (single play) from the 1930s to the 1970s.
Coming Out and Only Connect are available as part of the Prejudice and Pride collection at BBC Store